From Alté to Alté-fuji: The Making of a New Genre

Alté to Alté-fuji

Photo illustration by Dami Mojid.

THE MINISTRY OF ARTS / MUSIC DEPT.

From Alté to Alté-fuji: The Making of a New Genre

The exploration of fuji music by the likes of Asake, Seyi Vibez, Mohbad, Zinolesky and Barry Jhay has given rise to the subgenre of neo-fuji. Now, Odunsi The Engine, Cruel Santino, Lady Donli, Temmie Ovwasa, and a new crop of ‘Alté’ artistes, who are subverting and bypassing the neo-fuji template, promise to transform the future of fuji music.
Alté to Alté-fuji

Photo illustration by Dami Mojid.

THE MINISTRY OF ARTS / MUSIC DEPT.

From Alté to Alté-fuji: The Making of a New Genre

The exploration of fuji music by the likes of Asake, Seyi Vibez, Mohbad, Zinolesky and Barry Jhay has given rise to the subgenre of neo-fuji. Now, Odunsi The Engine, Cruel Santino, Lady Donli, Temmie Ovwasa, and a new crop of ‘Alté’ artistes, who are subverting and bypassing the neo-fuji template, promise to transform the future of fuji music.

Try to hear Seyi Vibez’s ‘Professor’ in your head without the beat: 

You’re my obsession 

Hotspot my connection 

I waka for you, like debit collector 

Loseyi professor 

You’d bet that was Pasuma singing a cappella.  

Do the same with Asake’s ‘Lonely at the Top’. Look at the call and response. Hear the pre-chorus. Listen to the second verse. That’s fuji. 

Fuji is a Yorùbá traditional music based on percussion, choral call and response, oratorical melody and Islamic tonality. It was popularized in the 1960s by pioneer, Alhaji Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, who also named it. It evolved from wéré music, a chant-based wake-up music performed by mobile Muslim groups of young men, called ajisari, who would go around waking up the faithful for prayer and fasting during Ramadan. (For a feel of wéré check out Epo-Akara’s Atoto Arere.) Barrister was instrumental to that evolution. Like Gani Kuti, Alhaji Dauda Epo-Akara and Kollington Ayinla, another fuji pioneer, he was himself a wéré heavyweight. 

A cocktail of mostly different Yorùbá forms of music, Barrister combined sákárá, àpàlà, juju and Afrobeat for a distinct fuji sound in the 1970s. All but the last are Yorùbá traditional music genres. This highlights how strongly rooted in Yorùbá culture the genre is. A typical fuji singer has a Yorùbá worldview, dispenses Yorùbá people’s wisdom and showcases their philosophy. They’re also likely to embrace Islamic principles. (See Barrister’s last project, Reality, for a feel of fuji.) Fuji is an ever-evolving musical form. From Barrister’s Fuji Garbage to K1’s Talazo Fuji to Obesere’s Fuji Pop to Ayuba’s Fuji Bonsue to Osupa’s Hip Fuji and Pasuma’s Afro-fuji, fuji is a stubborn sound that has evolved through the decades. Neo-fuji might only be the newest defining stage in its evolution. 

Now listen to Seyi Vibez’s and Asake’s songs with their beat. That’s neo-fuji. Neo-fuji is fuji delivery on an Afrobeat/hip-hop instrumental usually with street-heavy lyrics. These days, an Amapiano bounce is often added to the mix. Most neo-fuji artistes cultivate the Yorùbá worldview like their fuji influences. Dami Ajayi, the poet and music critic, writes that Asake obsesses with a quest for wisdom in his songs. That’s a Yorùbá-music attitude. This and a prayerful state of mind are characteristic of neo-fuji singers as they were and still are cognisant of their fuji forebears. The prayerful mood has especially seen most of their outputs classified as Afro-adura—a mix, per Wisdom Musasiru, of Afrobeats (Afro) and prayer (‘àdúrà’). Perhaps, paranoia, like prayer, though a staple in Afrobeats, might also be traceable to fuji. Given the many feuds that fuelled fuji music, there might be a case for this. Only see how Barrister pushed paranoia into the peak of craftsmanship on Reality (2012). 

Neo-fuji artistes also embrace a technical move inspired in part by fuji artistes’ Yorùbá wordplay and in part by street slang and ‘lamba’ of Dagrin’s and Olamide’s indigenous rap. See Asake’s second verse on ‘2:30’ for a sample. There, he delivers melodic pseudo-rap lines and dispenses multi-syllabic rhymes as if he was Jay Z in disguise. (Tranquillity, tranquillity/I no get time to dey form activity/Kole kalas, I dey find stability…) Or see Seyi’s ‘Hushpuppi’. Packets of lines are simply him showcasing this skill in different melodies and varying speed. He code-switches, false-raps, alludes, all the while is relaxed and causal. (No be wasa, no be child’s play (no be child’s play)/She wan chop me like pallia’, Barry made/Omo Olohun, moti ra’le/I go j’aye, no matter, yeah-ayy…) 

Like most neo-music, neo-fuji on the whole upcycles, updates and rebrands a style of music that is considered old or fading, while being respectful and thankful. It is especially reminiscent of American neo-soul, which, in the 1990s, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Maxwell invented by layering 70s gospel-inflected soul music on 90s hip-hop beats. 

For bonus, check out Barry Jhay’s ‘Aiye’. Barry Jhay, who is a child of Barrister, took the title of his dad’s 1980 LP Aiye for his 2018 single. He even retained the old Yorùbá spelling of ‘life’. Consider Portable, Poco Lee and Olamide’s 2021 ‘ZaZoo Zehh’ as well. Also, Pasuma’s QDot-assisted Afro-fuji track, ‘Omo Ologo’ (2022). Neo-fuji is in fact sometimes called Afro-fuji. And Mohbad’s ‘Feel Good’ is a delightful neo-fuji reimagination of James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’. 

Thanks to Asake, Seyi Vibez, Zinolesky and Mohbad, neo-fuji is by now mainstream. Streams have been scored, charts topped and tours held. Everybody is somewhat aware. But in a country that has a special lingo for a set of artistes who love their self-expression and artistic freedom more than anything, neo-fuji, though new and in vogue, cannot remain untouchable. 

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ALTÉ-FUJI: ALTÉ ARTISTES EXPLORE THE SOUND OF FUJI

Alté is a lingo for alternative music in the Nigerian soundscape. Short for, and cropped from, ‘alternative,’ Alté is a movement, a concept. It is a way of being that champions staying true to yourself in spite of existing traditions or cultural restrictions. And it has its lifestyle, fashion, arts, culture and, subsequently, music. The music is a fusion genre that blends African rhythms with just any and all genres of a singer’s choice and is perhaps the best promoter of the subculture. 

While the organization, African Music Library, traces Alté roots to the early 2000s, Makua Adimora, for Native Magazine, places the first prominent emergence of the movement around 2009 to 2014. Then, she offers that, ‘DRB LasGidi, L.O.S (Loud On Sound), Ajebutter22, Show Dem Camp (SDC), and Blackmagic,’ many of whom were secondary school students at the time, embodied the Alté state of mind. (The musical group DRB LasGidi consists of Fresh L, TeeZee and BOJ. The latter, in his 2014 track ‘Paper’, coined the term ‘Alté’, which is now used to describe the non-conforming subculture and the left-field music. Say the ladies they like me because I’m an Alté guy, BOJ croons.) Their music spilled into the public through the internet and MP3 blogs. The second phase, led by the likes of Odunsi (The Engine), Cruel Santino (formerly Ozzy B and then Santi), Lady Donli, Tay Iwar, and Amaarae, came about around 2016. Thanks to platforms like SoundCloud and events like NATIVELAND, these artistes enjoyed more publicity and tighter colleagueship. They could now in fact be said to be mainstream. So Alté might be better defined as self-expressive music than alternative music. This amorphous music is breaking the now-capped neo-fuji template. 

Except this is not so true. 

But, first, Alté-fuji sounds like this. For neo-fuji, the formula is straightforward: fuji on afrobeats. If you like, you can keep a hip-hop pace, add an amapiano bass, sample a juju hook or key in a tungba bridge. For the Alté folks, such rules do not hold. The exploration of fuji is so varied and individualistic that no two Alté artistes doing fuji sound alike. In fact, Odunsi did not sound the same on the different tracks where he explored fuji. Neither has Santino. Their take on fuji can be nebulous to the point that we could almost classify any fuji-based music (by an Alté artiste) that doesn’t sound like neo-fuji as Alté-fuji. But this is lazy definition. 

Thus, Alté-fuji is when Odunsi extracts some fuji lyrics from the past and laces them on his unique atmospheric vibe, neo-soul, trap beat, distorted voice and creamy delivery. See ‘Fuji 5000’ (2020) and ‘OTE!’ (2023). And he sings most or part of the tracks in fuji-fit Yorùbá, only the chorus of the first song, nearly all of the second song. On ‘OTE’, he does that and more. Beyond the ripped-off fuji phrases, he also infuses the essence of fuji into his trap beat and psychedelic, futuristic sound, using a slangy Yorùbá vocabulary expected of the best of fuji singers. He looks into the past and the future at once to create a sonic aura lost in time and ahead of time but in the moment. The self-produced beat swells, calms and bounces. What a mix. 

Alté-fuji is when, on the 2023 ‘No Days Off’, Teni recounts her day-one smart moves with an afrobeats-inflected braggadocio on an engineered hardcore 2000-ish fuji beat. (Even the album cover and the music video aesthetics are from that era.) Afrobeats delivered on a fuji beat. That’s neo-fuji in reverse.  

Alté-fuji is when, on ‘FRT’, Cruel Santino, unique for his ragga delivery, gothic motifs, psychedelic feel and gibberish-like lyrics, raps about being loved in the ghettos on a popping fuji beat like Teni’s. ‘FRT’ is from his latest project, Cincinnati Pumpin!! (2023) and is assisted by S-Smart, who borrowed some popular lyrics from folklore and Tungba, a music style unique to white-garment churches. He delivers a surprising second verse.  

Alté-fuji is when, on ‘Ajijobo; Fuji Lite’, Temmie Ovwasa goes explicit in the style of Saint Janet, speaking fuji on a drill beat, like a Salewa Abeni on an Ice Spice track, at once in the past, the present and the future. At one point she turns a famous line from Olu Maintain’s 2007 hit ‘Yahooze’ into sexual I-don’t-care-ism. She sings mostly in bold, profane Yorùbá, reminiscent of Obesere’s worldly vocabulary. The song is rich in Nigerian music references and slang, only with a gash of sexual expressiveness, and she opens the track by paying homage to Wasiu Alabi Pasuma, Big Boss of fuji music. The track is off the 2024 album Ajijobo; The Art of Ruining Your Reputation and is perhaps one of its highlights. 

Perhaps Alté-fuji is any fuji-based music (by an Alté artiste) that doesn’t sound like neo-fuji. Alté-fuji is nebulous. Alté-fuji is endless. And we might not even need a tag. 

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ODUNSI (THE ENGINE) AND CRUEL SANTINO: A FUJI RADICAL DUO

Alté artistes are not simply subverting Asake’s and Seyi Vibez’s neo-fuji. At best, they are bypassing it. Alté sound has always tapped into the past. Artistes like Odunsi (The Engine), Cruel Santino and Lady Donli especially favour nostalgia via Y2K aesthetics and old Nollywood sentimentalism. Take their music videos and cover art. It isn’t then surprising to see Odunsi spin popular fuji lines into the first and third lines of his four-line chorus on a 2AAB-produced trap beat. Adewale Ayuba released his 18th career project Ijo Fuji in 2007. The first line of the LP goes: E jijo fuji larin larin. (Dance the fuji dance joyously.) Circa 2000, Abass Akande Obesere, known for his ferocious dance fuji, energetic stage presence and street slang (ààkaà), sang Energy 2000, the jingle for one of herbal remedies company, Yem-Kem International’s solutions. On the jingle, Obesere called and the backups responded: Kilo mumi ta ponpon? Energy 2000. (What energizes me? Energy 2000.) Fast forward to 2020, when Odunsi released the single ‘Fuji 5000’, in which he sings, E jijo fuji 5000, and we can feel a mix of both the LP and the jingle on his track. This pre-dates 2021 and 2022, the years neo-fuji became a mainstay. 

Next comes ‘OTE!’ in Odunsi’s experimentation with fuji music. Off his 2023 SPORT EP, the track took off two famous fuji words and repeated them a couple of times in the first verse: Mojibola, Mobolaji. Again the words are from Adewale Ayuba but this time from the veteran’s 2021 hit single, ‘Koloba Koloba’, snatched right in the middle of some delightful Yorùbá wordplay on a set of similarly-sounding names. On ‘OTE!’, Odunsi’s delivery is fuji and the lyrics are mostly in Yorùbá. Beside the chorus, which repeatedly spells out the title, there are 67 words. 30 of them are Yorùbá. And what Odunsi did with slang reminds one of Obesere. In fact, Odunsi’s title is Yorùbá slang for fool (in all caps and with an exclamation mark). 

Odunsi is deliberate. He might be drawn to something hippie in the kind of fuji he flirts with. Both Obesere and Ayuba’s brands of fuji have an energetic bounce to them. The latter especially added youthful vigour to fuji music at a time when the frontmen were old, creating a sound the young and the old both liked. (Ayuba released his first record at 17.) With the success of ‘Koloba Koloba’ perhaps Gen Zs like it, too.  

Like Odunsi, Cruel Santino has a history of tapping into fuji sound. Not surprising for someone who, in 2019, described his music as ‘every genre of music with an alternative twist.’ ‘FRT’ isn’t his first or only time exploring fuji sound. It is only his loudest. He does fuji as well on his Octavian-assisted ‘End of the Wicked’. On the 2020 GMK- and Genio-produced track, he feeds his stubborn lusting after a hard-to-get girl to a fuji beat. The track takes its title from the 1999 horror film End of the Wicked (1999), infamous for promoting witchcraft accusations against children. This is by now expected of Cruel Santino, who often dips his hands into the Nigerian near-past for his gothic motifs and dark energy. 

Similarly, experiments with fuji in ‘The Vatican: Superb Artistry’. This was the side-B of his 2023 two-track single, ‘Holiday Sipping’. Both songs are from his forthcoming album, Subaru Boys: King of the Bounce. Produced by Tyler Turner and featuring Slater and LOLA, fuji beat provides a container for serious girl chasing. Then cut back a bit to ‘showmetheway!!’ On the 2023 street-branching record, he enlisted Poco Lee for a refreshing street sound. The beat leans more towards Terry G’s and Project X’s street pop and Cruel Santino borrows some phrasing and tonality from the latter’s 2010 hit single ‘Lori Le’ (O ti e le) for his own pre-chorus, all the while inserting turn tabling and Djaying into the song. But you hear fuji as well if you listen enough. Notice, also, that Santino added a fuji bounce to Genio Bambino-produced ‘TAPENGA’, the fourth track off his 2022 Subaru Boys: FINAL HEAVEN 

Odunsi is often perceived as the poster boy for Alté music and Santino, who’s like a ‘big brother’ to Odunsi, the king. So representative are their musical tastes that an Alté listicle or playlist is unfinished without them. Though the list of Altè music pioneers might be long, they are among the first few, if not the first, that laid the groundwork for Alté-fuji, if there is or will be anything like that.  

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ALTÉ-FUJI: DOING UNHEARD-OF THINGS WITH FUJI

We now have a label and have developed some consciousness of what artistes experimenting with fuji should sound like. They should sing fuji on afrobeats instrumentals. Consequently, Alté-fuji can often sound like neo-fuji subverted. But Alté music, a Do-It-Yourself, mix-them-all approach to music includes fuji music and alté artistes might experiment with fuji at any point in time. In fact, they have done so before and during the trendy times of neo-fuji and they likely will after. Alté artistes aren’t abiding by the templates of what we recognize as neo-fuji even when they use the base sound of fuji. Fuji is simply among the various sounds and styles they could explore. And the label, though of little use, should suffice, as long as we mean DIY musicians squeezing sonic juices from fuji.  

Time will tell if Alté-fuji will become more defined or more recognized. The artistes exploring the sound will. Global music platforms and streaming apps will. The listeners will. The public will. The journalists will. The critics will. The algorithms will. And posterity will, too. But forget all these for now and open Ovwasa’s ‘Ajijobo; Fuji Lite’. Listen to her vocalize and scat like a Nina Simone on dope. Look at how her hummed ad-libs spar with a thick baseline. See her refrain drag like the start of a late orgasm. Feel her soft ‘Ahs’, which she sounds out like the Florence of Florence & The Machine at the start of a nap. Hear packs of phrases, soft and bouncy like a tennis ball, repeat themselves across a steady, hard beat. She’s doing unheard-of things with fuji. That’s Alté-fuji

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